- chapter: UNDER FATE'S WHEEL CHAPTER I THE BEGINNING--WHY SHE RODE
|chapter 2 >||chapter 30 >>|
UNDER FATE'S WHEEL
THE BEGINNING--WHY SHE RODE
"YOU'LL have to ride slowly, Sergeant Craig--and, tell the bearers to look out for those--those dog-holes. Don't let the men go too fast or unevenly, and be sure you make Harch understand that he will be well paid--paid for all his trouble. You'll be able to make it before sundown--and--that's all, I think. Oh wait!" Captain Lewis reins his horse close beside the improvised litter, made of a blanket swung hammock-wise between four stout regulars, and looks down upon the pale, handsome face with the bandaged temples and pain-darkened eyes. "Are you game for the tramp across country, Hill?" he asks kindly. "Can we make you any more comfortable in any way?"
The head upon the blanket pillow moves ever so little, and the lips essay a whisper. Captain | | 10 Lewis drops from his saddle and bends close above the hammock.
"Beale? " whispers the white lips.
"Beale! Lieutenant Beale? Do you want him--is that it, Hill?"
"Yes, yes; I understand!" The Captain turns away, and beckons to the dashing lieutenant, who sits his horse with such sure and careless grace. They confer together for a moment, and then both come to the side of the injured man.
"Beale shall go with you, Hill, the captain says, and he will see you safely back and into the hospital. Goodbye once more, Hill." Turning to remount his horse, he catches the eye of Corporal Craig fixed upon him questioningly, and says, as if answering a spoken question, "No, Craig; you will remain in charge of the escort. Lieutenant Beale goes simply and solely as the companion of Hill.' He wheels his horse about in the dusty main road.
"Atten-tion--com -pany!" The men who have been gathered around the "hospital duty squad," and their charge, remount and fall easily into line almost before the word of command is given. Corporal Craig salutes his superior officer, and starts his little cavalcade on its way over the lesser trail leading south-east, and the main body of horsemen at the word of command sets off at a swinging trot eastward, over the main trail, toward their destination, the regimental port.
For two hours the men who carry the injured man in the hammock so carefully, so tenderly, plod | | 11 on, pausing often to change the bearers, who walk and ride by turns; those who carry the burden pacing slowly, those who ride leading the four horses with the empty saddles, and Corporal Craig riding ahead, alert for the prairie dog-holes and the occasional openings, or "chimneys," so called, of the abandoned dug-outs, replaced now, some of them, by huts and sheds, these also abandoned for the most part, as the fever of the squatter has led him for ever westward; while Lieutenant Beale rides close by the hammock's side, watchful of every change in the pallid, pain-racked face of Sergeant Hill, his long time friend and comrade in adventure, and overhead there shines down the sun rays of a warm, June day. The level prairies of Wyoming stretch all about them, and the only sound not made by their own voices, or the movement of men and horses, is the hum of insect life, heard here and there as the tiny winged creatures hover above the waving grass and scattering blossoms of the plains.
It is a slow, monotonous journey; but at last it ends, and the party comes to a halt before the "ranche," so called of "Jim" Harch, half way between the port town and the point at which the escort party had left Captain Lewis and his "command" of thirty men. It is anything but the ideal ranche of the tender-foot's vision--before a glimpse of the reality shatters the romantic shade--little more than a system of tumble-down sheds and "lean-tos," in fact, held together and bolstered up by diverse shifts and lazy expedients, and redeemed from utter barrenness by a group of sickly young | | 12 trees, struggling against drought and heat and the withering sand-storm for a precarious existence. Under these trees the escort halts, and the hammock is gently eased down, while Corporal Craig rides on to the corral to enter his plea for hospitality.
"Wot's up with ther feller?" queries Jim Harch, transferring a big mouthful of vile tobacco from his left cheek to his right, when he has heard the plea for shelter for the injured man and his caretakers. "'Aint got nothin' kinta gei-ous, has he?"
"Nothing more than the kick of a horse, a blow, and a shock. Hurts worst internally, I'm afraid. Corporal Hill's horse died about thirty miles to the west while on the march, and he took a half-broken and half-breed pony out of a pack of a dozen we were taking across for use at the port. It was a vicious brute, but Hill is a good horseman and not afraid of the devil himself. This morning, before we had been half an hour on the road, the brute took fright at a jack rabbit, and after a stout tussel, it flung Hill, who struck his head against a stone--fell among them, in fact--and is a badly hurt man. We've done our best for him, and now, if you'll send a man into town on a fresh horse, it'll be the quickest way to bring a doctor. He'd get there before the trap does, I reckon." And Craig added some words about suitable reward and the captain's gratitude.
"Oh, that's all right," drawled Harch, "unly--I was jest thinkin', whar'r' we goin' tu git the man--'less 'ts one of your fellows."
"Our horses," interrupted the corporal, "are about ready for the stable and a rub down; a fresh | | 13 mount is what is needed, and some one to bring it back."
"Jest so; any one o' my men folks 'ud go,--unly--they're clar off ther ranch jes' now." Harch is standing with his back against a sod stable, the door of which, hanging by one rusty hinge, is just at his left. As Harch utters the last word, a voice issuing from this place calls out shrilly--
The voice comes over the corporal's shoulder, and he turns swiftly to see Lieutenant Beale just behind him, touching his cap to his superior officer, then turns again, and sees the cause of this sudden exclamation standing in the low stable doorway.
It is a girl, slender and less than the medium in height, with a dark gipsy face and eyes that flash and gleam--large eyes that look midnight black under their fringe of long, thick lashes.
"Jove!" again murmurs the lieutenant across his shoulder. "It's a little prairie siren!"
Yes, that is what she looks standing there in her dark blue gown--"indigo blue" she would call it--and it is only a common print, but a scarlet girdle is tied about the lithe waist, and a silk handkerchief of the same hue is knotted about the round, full throat; while a blue and scarlet "tam" is perched rakishly upon the back of a small head, covered with a thick mass of short, jetty curls. A siren indeed, with her dark glowing skin, her small full mouth, ruby red, and showing even gleaming white teeth. The chin is a trifle too prominent perhaps, but rounded and with a dimple lurking in it. The nose is small and | | 14 piquant, the whole face sparkles with life, and the spirit of adventure, free, fearless, untrammelled, and uncontrolled. As she stands in the shabby doorway her eyes shoot straight past the plain-featured, honest-hearted corporal, and rest with bright and fearless inquiry upon the handsome face of Lieutenant Beale.
"Hello!" cries Harch, with an elaborate affectation of surprise. "I wonder if thar's any place whar you ain't when there's anything goin' on there! You go ridin' off all by yourself crost-country--not but what she kin ride ; an' she knows ther trail, too."
"Is it difficult"--it is, Lieutenant Beale, who puts the question--"to follow the trail?"
"Wal, ye can't mess gettin' thar in co'rse o' time; ye kin see ther town after a couple or three mile o' ridin'. It's ther trails that run crisscross, an' sort o' puzzle a stranger. He's like to git out o' his way consid'able."
Lieutenant Beale is as persuasive as he is handsome, and he has quite forgotten his long morning's ride and the fatigue felt so keenly only ten minutes earlier. He declares himself ready to be guided across the plains if Miss Harch will kindly be the guide; that too much time has been lost already, and that he only leaves his suffering friend for that friend's good. He will pay liberally for the use of a fleet horse, &c.
The etiquette of the plains is as broad and liberal as themselves. Jim Harch sees no reason why his daughter should not ride to the post-town in company with the ranking officer of the party, and Victorine, called Vic for short, is as frankly eager for the ride as is the lieutenant--now.| | 15
No more time is wasted. The young officer says a few parting words of cheer to the injured man, while his horse is "caught up" and saddled, and Vic saddles her own lively steed, and with no troubling thought of habit, gauntlets, or veil, rides away at the side of the dashing soldier, a bright figure in her blue and red. The black curls tossing beneath her bright-hued cap, her laugh ringing clear, as she lifts her horse with a rush and a swift bound over the gate her cavalier has just dismounted to open for her exit.
When Corporal Craig catches his last glimpse of them they are racing their swift, half-broken ponies over the prairie side by side, their faces turned each-otherward.
"We must go for Doctor Mitchell," Vic says, as they ride into town, their ponies panting, themselves flushed and eager, each with a new and personal interest. But it is not the same; for Beale is thinking above all, of this gipsy beauty at his side, while she--is thinking of and planning for--the circus."
They had passed its grimy tents upon the outskirts of the town as they entered it; and Vic was palpitating with interest, for to her it is a new thing, a wonder--the first circus the little western community has yet known, and Vic is to the prairie born.
It is easy to find Doctor Mitchell, for the health of the town is unusually robust, and the good doctor finds plenty of leisure. He sets off now upon his shaggy but swift bronco, his case of instruments on the saddle before him; and when Vic has seen him gallop away down Maine Street, she turns to her companion.| | 16
"Now, " she says, with dancing eyes, "let's go to the circus."
As Millard Beale looks into that glowing face, he would willingly forget his suffering comrade but for one thought, an idea which has come to him while he listened to her questions about "The Marvel of the Age," "The Great Aggregation of Talent," &c.
As they ride through the town, slowly now, so that Vic may admire and criticise the gaudy posters portraying flying horses, leaping damsels in abbreviated skirts, chariots of gold driven by "eastern queens," and all the usual marvels so enchanting upon paper, so disappointing in the flesh, he argues his case and wins it.
He would be only too happy to linger with her and to enjoy the wonders of the arena; but he cannot forget his friend and his duty to him. He ought to return at once, and he cannot, as Vic frankly proposes, return, leaving her behind, after her father's distinctly stated objection to her riding across the plain alone. "But"--and here he speaks with caution, watching closely the effect of his words--"there is the evening performance; might they not manage to return later and attend that?" and here he launches into a glowing eulogy of the circus by night, under the glow of the lamps and the glare of the calcium light. He has feared a little to make this bold stroke, but that is because he does not know Vic.
She drops her reins to clap her hands in delight, and assents gleefully. Not only assents, but at once plans the way--plans it as unconcernedly as if she had known him years instead of hours. For in this | | 17 break-neck ride of an hour across the prairie, this child of nature and follower of her own sweet will has sprung into full comradeship with him, and considers him no more a stranger.
"Of course we can come!" she cries, her eyes dancing, her face aglow with smiling anticipation. "We can manage that all right. But--you must not say a word to Pop!"
"Do--do you mean that we must--run away?" "Of course we must, stupid. Pop would raise the roof if he knew. I'll tell you how I'll manage."
She makes it very clear to him, detailing her plans with gleeful disregard of aught save her own inclination, and with perfect faith in his willingness to carry them all out, as indeed he is by this time, even in the face of the possibility of a meeting with some officer of his troop.
She could bribe one of the men, she told him, "with a drink of whisky," and she knows where to find this article. He will have the horse ready and in waiting; she can drop out of her window in the shadow of the trees close beside it, and return by the same way. The lieutenant, she knows, will be put, with his party, in the south "lean-to," which has an outside door of its own. They can ride away almost as soon as it is dark.
"Pop and the folks go to bed quick as dark's come, sometimes earlier," she concludes; "and if Pop hears our horses he'll just think it's the boys going out over the trail."
"But--won't they--some of them, go to town themselves, possibly?"
Vic laughs and shakes her head. "Not they ," | | 18 she says with fine scorn; "they got into a fuss down there only a week ago, and if they show faces so soon they'll be locked up, sure, and have to pay fines. No fear of meeting them."
And so it was settled.
Dr. Mitchell looked grave over the injured head and bruised body of the sufferer, who had been transferred from the hammock to the best bed the ranch could afford; but when he announced that there would be no change for at least twenty-four hours, and that the sick man would sleep through the night, under the influence of a powerful opiate, Lieutenant Beale felt that he might safely leave his charge, to indulge himself in what he looked upon as a piquant and pleasant "lark," in the company of a pretty gipsy of the plains.
All went smoothly, as Vic had planned it, and darkness had scarcely fallen ere the two were galloping again over the way they had so lately travelled.
"We must ride fast ," panted the girl; "I don't want to miss a single thing! Just think of those lovely wee ponies, and the dancing dogs, and oh! the lady going through the hoop! I believe I could learn that! I can ride a galloping pony standing now--bareback at that."
The lieutenant laughed. "I'd give more to see you do that than to witness all the glories of the 'greatest show on earth,' which this is not by considerable."
"It'll be the greatest on earth for me," she laughed back; " and I'll ride for you to-morrow. I don't think I shall care much about the woman | | 19 with the snakes," she went on, reverting to the one idea foremost in her mind; "but the man riding the four horses must be just splendid! And--oh! Lieutenant Beale, what did that picture of girl standing straight up on the rim of a big wheel mean? No one could do that, you know, really! The wheel couldn't balance, and she'd get a fall. But the picture was lovely."
The young man turned an amazed face towards her, peering through the dark, and then he laughed.
"My dear child! Is it possible that you have never seen or read of the wheel ?"
"The wheel? What wheel?"
"The bicycle then--the machine on wheels, that goes faster than the horse."
"Ah, bah! I have heard of people who put the cart before the horse, and so you are one of them. I shall like to see the wheels go ahead of--faster than the horse, sir!" and Vic laughs mockingly.
It takes the lieutenant some time to explain to this untutored mind the mechanism of the bicycle, and when at last she seems to comprehend she can talk of nothing else.
"How perfectly splendid!" she cries. "It must be next to flying; and I shall see it soon!"
And now the lights of the circus tent gleam afar, and they hasten their speed. But Vic has less enthusiasm for the earlier charms of the show.
It is true that she and he pass in review the half-dozen cages of forlorn and ill-smelling animals, stop to gloat over the ponies, and to laugh at the monkeys, and that her small feet keep time to the music of the ill-attuned brass band; true that she | | 20 watches with awe the "grand entry," as the bespangled riders come trotting into the ring; but she scoffs at their horsemanship, and turns with relief to the leapers and tumblers as they begin their act.
It is a very poor show, and the lieutenant yawns, and would be doubly bored were it not for the naive companion at his side.
He has looked cautiously about upon entering, and is assured that there are none of the troop present, and he is getting some entertainment out of the people about him; especially is he amused at the comments of a lank and reedy plainsman sitting just below him, who seems lost in an effort to convince himself that he is a sophisticated circus-goer, on the strength of having "seen 'em back east years an' years ago'.
"Those 'cute, 'cute doggies!" explains Vie, as a quartette of water spaniels begin their "turn." "What kind are they, Lieutenant Beale?"
Before the young man can reply the lank stranger turns squarely about, and looks up in the girl's face, gravely, sagely. "Them's long y'eared dawgs, chile," he drawls. "An I'll tell ye another thing; that nigger there 't ye spoke about jest now ain't no more nigger than I be! He's the ole clown blacked up; I kin see the white back in his y'ears ."
But now comes the bicycle trick-rider, and Vic has eyes for nothing else, and "y'ears" for no one.
It does not matter to her that the lean person in the abbreviated skirts is a young man, and the same who, in skirts of another hue, has appeared | | 21 as Mademoiselle Celestine De Navarro. It is the feat, not the performer of it, which attracts and holds her spellbound.
It is not the display of marvellous balancing and swift and dexterous handling that have made the names of Richardson, Maltby, and others synonymous for athletic skill in the bicycle world since then. Far from it.
The wheel is the big and little wheeled "ordinary of "away back," a relic even then, but suiting the operator, who rides it standing, kneeling, and upon his stomach, and "scorches" about and about the little arena, carrying a tree-like arrangement clasped to his breast, which bore, upon its stiff branches, the flags of all nations.
Vic watches it all breathlessly, and when the big ordinary goes rolling out of the ring, its rider waving a big red hand with clumsy coquetry, she heaves a long sigh and settles back in her seat, and, for the next quarter of an hour, she seems to be thinking, and to take little interest in the other occupants of the ring.
Then comes the pièce de rèsistance of the country sirens, the clown and his trick mule. But the manager has made an innovation, and a black pony, handsome and high-stepping, comes in, side by side with the mule. He has been trained to waltz, to walk erect, and to do various other stock tricks, and when the two animals have performed, singly and together, the ring master addresses the spectators.
He has heard how the young ladies of the western prairie states can drive and ride, and even break and train, the most unmanageable horses; | | 22 and so, beside offering a prize to the boy who will ride the trick mule, he will give, to the young lady who will successfully ride the black pony Satan, twenty-five dollars in gold . Of course, he expects no takers for the last challenge, and great is his surprise--while that of Lieutenant Beale is even greater--when Vic, after a moment's deliberation, rises, and, without so much as a glance at her companion, steps down and into the arena.
Plainly this is more than the master of ceremonies had looked for, and the two are seen to confer together earnestly. It is evident that the gentleman of the whip is trying to dissuade her, to shake her purpose. The pantomime is plain, though the words are unheard.
Presently the people begin to get restless, to applaud, when the girl gestures and looks toward the black pony, and to hiss when the man demurs. But this cannot long continue. The band crashes out a new number, the black steed paws and snorts, the people are all hissing now, and cries of "Give her a chance!" "Let the girl try him!" "Fair play, old man," &c., are heard, and the ring master shrugs his shoulders, as if disclaiming all responsibility in the issue. And then, suddenly, the crowd settles down to breathless stillness.
Vic has approached the pawing animal, looked him over with careful eye, patted his nose, and slipped her hand along his sleek neck until it touches the pommel of the saddle, and now she grasps it and the bridle, both at once; and now she has leaped to his back: she is off, and flying about the circus ring; her cap is gone in the first wild | | 23 her short curls are tossing as she sways with motion of the horse.
Black Satan runs, jumps, wheels, bounds; but Vic sits a part of the flying thing beneath her, and, when she has brought her steed to something like subjection, she checks him directly in front of the ring master, and springs to the ground.
Taking off the saddle with her own hands, she replaces blanket and quilt, and springs again to the animal's back, and once more they are away. And now there is a burst of cheers, for the girl is upon her feet; she has slipped off her low shoes as she rides, and now she stands erect, swaying, poising; now upon one foot, now on the other; now skipping lightly back and forth.
It is splendid riding: reckless, graceful, daring. Practically it ends the circus, and Vic beckons to her cavalier, and they slip away out of the crowd and reach their horses in silence.
For a long time the girl rides on silent, still; and the lieutenant knows that she is thinking. The moon peeps out as they ride, and he can see her white-set face, her intent, unseeing, forward gaze.
Wondering much he yet humours her mood, and rides at her side in silence, after the first words of praise and admiration have been uttered. He, too, has found, in the doings of this night, food for much thinking.
Suddenly she pulls up her horse and turns towards him, and the moonlight shows him that the sparkling, saucy, merry face can look strong and full of purpose.
"Do you know what I am going to do?" she | | 24 asks suddenly, and as he shakes his head she hurries on.
"I am going to go away with that troupe to-morrow! I am going to learn to ride that splendid wheel! To be a trick rider. I must get into town early to-morrow to see the manager, and I must keep it all as still as death. You must help me!"
"Child, you are crazy!"
"I am not! I was bound to ride on that queer, swift wheel somehow! I asked the man if he would take me along if I rode the black horse, and he said yes and glad to do it. That was why I rode."
|chapter 2 >||chapter 30 >>|